We Need to Talk About Gygax

I’m currently perusing 13th Age, a new D&D rehash by Jonathon Tweet and Rob Heinsoo . It’s very good, with D&D veterans Tweet and Heinsoo taking all the really excellent ideas in 3rd and 4th ed and clearing out almost all the clutter – and adding some lovely new ideas to keep it fresh, many of which I’m just going to steal wholecloth for my own designs. On the other hand, it’s still D&D. Indeed, Tweet called it a “love-letter to D&D” and that’s totally accurate: the book drips with adoration for not just the ideas of D&D but the way those ideas have built our hobby. It’s also a phrase I mocked pretty viciously when I first heard it. Not because there’s anything wrong with writing a love letter to D&D, it’s just not exactly the first time it’s been done. D&D is the RPG equivalent of the vapid blonde with the big tits; finding another love letter to her is dispiriting not just because of jealousy but because of the sheer tedium.

But the tedium is de rigeur. Inescapably. And Tweet and Heinsoo make this point themselves. The game does not include the D&D alignment system, or anything like it, but the writers see fit to place their key NPCs and faction groups on that axis, because it is the lingua franca. They say that you should feel free to use those mechanics because they are “part of our culture”. Which brings me to the question: am I the only one even slightly horrified by that fact?

Let’s get some background here: I’m a critic, and I take the job seriously. I’m also a pretty high-bar critic, in that I think the majority of RPGs are uninteresting pablum at best, derivative trash at worst, and a game has to do a lot more than be well designed to actually impress me. And here’s the other point: I’ve never liked D&D. I’ve had fun playing D&D, but never anything to write home about, and only very, very rarely because of D&D, rather than because of what we were doing with it – indeed sometimes because we were deliberately mocking it and working against it. More importantly, over and over again, for years and years, D&D, its mechanics and its central design principles have done more to harm and hamper my fun than anything else in gaming.

Partly this is just a story of experience. I’ve never been a big fan of post-Tolkein fantasy, or a big reader of it. I encountered D&D itself from a gaming position, without any background in the fiction, or love thereof. My genre interests have always been more towards pulp, action and espionage, and I really didn’t engage with roleplaying until I found the Palladium games which are centred on those concepts. There’s also the issue of timing: I picked up the redbook oD&D set just as it was being more and more phased out by AD&D, and thus had no-one to play with, and little access to the higher level books. So I was stuck with campaigns that had to end at 3rd level, which was enormously frustrating. But there still are plenty of things about D&D itself that I find distasteful, pointless, arcane and just plain dull, and other parts I just find bad design.

The combination of all this means my mind associates D&D and all its tropes with non-fun. Which would be fine except for one single fact: as a hobby, more and more, we’ve accreted into the position of combining fantasy with D&D as one and the same thing.

Case in point: Apocalypse World was recently rebooted into a fantasy version of its rules – or so I heard. I was really excited, curious to see the same focussed lens on genre that was applied to post-apocalyptic survival applied to fantasy. But the thing is, it wasn’t applied to fantasy, it was applied to D&D. We had Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Wisdom, Intelligence and Charisma. We had something not unakin to mind-erasing spellcasters. We had hit points and hit dice. Levels. Wineskins and 10 foot poles. All the things that scream D&D. And which make me throw up in my mouth just to see them. They’re not the only one. When the Cortex system was turned to fantasy, it too was a D&D remake, from the DNA up, classes and races and all.

I raged that this wasn’t fantasy, but I think it’s just possible that ship has sailed long ago. Gygax has been – accurately, I believe – compared to Tolkien, Asimov and Roddenberry as someone whose works were so popular they actively shaped our expectations of genre so completely they defined them in stone. Tolkien never described orcs in his works, the green skin is pretty much down to Gygax and Arneson. Half orcs, half elves, the word halfling, dwarves with beards and axes and beer…if I knew my fantasy better, I’d probably be able to spot a lot more. I know someone wrote about trolls needing to be burnt by fire before it appeared in D&D, but I also know that D&D is why that is known as so hard a rule.

The question then becomes, is this a problem? If your definition of fantasy is D&D-esque, it doesn’t matter if all fantasy RPGs follow the D&D example. On the other hand, it seems to me that we murdered fantasy’s other options before we really got started. How many truly interesting, different, innovative fantasy games have there actually been, in thirty plus years of history? WFRP is drowning in D&Disms. There’s Ars Magica. Skyrealms of Jorune, maybe? Empire of the Petal Throne. Trollbabe and Polaris. A few Alice/nursery games. (Exalted might be a special case because it ties into other genres – although that leads us back to the question of what fantasy actually is) Generally, if you don’t embrace Tolkien/Gygax, you are forced to react to it, with reimaginings or reversals, like John Wick’s Orkworld, or rewire the tropes deep into the setting, like Earthdawn.

I mean, consider this: the RPG Talislanta’s most famous selling point is it has “no elves, ever”. How turgid a culture do we have that simply removing one single trope is dramatic enough to count as a selling point by itself? And how sad is it that even then, this claim is only a half-truth? Am I really the only person who doesn’t find that a little disheartening? That we’ve hung ourselves on the flag of elves like magic and dwarves don’t, forever and ever, amen? And that everything that came with that is so encoded we use it as a universal language, no matter how stupid, like the 3×3 alignment axes, or against source, like wizards sans swords, or damaging to fun, like XP for slaughter or coin? Are we really happy to carry all that baggage forward in our DNA – and celebrate it and enshrine it?

I never wanted to be Neutral Good, and I never want to again. And I’d love to play a fantasy game one day. Those two goals are becoming increasingly contradictory. And that makes me cranky. ON THE INTERNET, even.


15 thoughts on “We Need to Talk About Gygax

  1. Good points there, Steve.
    Regarding the influence of D&D on Fantasy-RPG, are you familiar with the concept of “Fantasy Heartbreaker”? šŸ™‚
    I did not know about the “fantasy” version of AW. Is it a hack, or an official sourcebook? Adding the 6 abilities and so on is preposterous; there is nothing further from D&D than the AW system. This is not reboot, but rape. šŸ˜¦

    • The fantasy Apocalypse World is called Dungeon World.http://www.dungeon-world.com/

      Fantasy Heartbreaker is a well known (but often misused term). I tend to disagree with Ron’s conclusion, which is that most, if not all of these games despite being carbon copies of D&D have some touch of brilliance in them (hence, breaking his heart) – I think most of them are just awful all the way through.

      The problem is less fantasy heartbreakers and more that even the non FH can’t escape D&D. Nobody can. D&D has won total dominion over fantasy, for ever and ever. Apparently.

      • Dungeon World is not a fantasy version Apocalypse World. It’s D&D done AW-style. That was explicitly the design goal. (The tag line “Treasure-looting, monster-fighting, dungeon-crawling action.” is rather a give-away) Disliking something for not being something it never meant to be is kinda pointless. “Fantasy AW” could take a hundred different forms (and will, what with the free use of the rules), but DW was never meant to be anything but what it is.

    • Rape? Because someone made a game they like but you think misses the point of the source material? And you go to rape for your analogy?

      • Is this a competition of Political Correctness? If so please discard the offensive words and focus on substance.

        My point is I have read AW, and I think I understand what kind of system and play it promotes – rules-light, focus on imagination, creative… If somebody adds D&D-kind of rules and D&D-philosophy to Apocalypse World, in my opinion it is literally tearing away this works into shreds, violating the concept, and the author of such a metamorphosis had better not started this adaptation in the first place, if it was to turn the ideas upside down. I just feel that if I was in Vincent Baker’s place, I wouldn’t appreciate.

        Now we could start a debate on the right to adapt, or the good intentions of the adapter. For me it is just similar to the old lady who tried to restore a painting of the Christ in a church, and ended up with an indescribable mess. šŸ™‚

  2. It’s certainly what a lot if the players want. But there have been alternatives. Runequest Is a broad church, Eric or Stormbringer are more doomladen than D&D and Dying Earth is a very different game. What do you mean by (heroic) fantasy?

    • Ah, Dying Earth is definitely worth a mention. But the truth is, I’m not sure I know what fantasy is, because it’s a weird house that in its infancy was co-opted by Gygax anyway…which means it IS appropriate to put Lawful Neutral in every fantasy game, because the sickness goes far beyond just RPGs. Indeed, how many classic fantasy novels are based on the author’s D&D campaign? I can think of three.

    • OK I get it, although I didn’t mean it as an insult but more as “this is violating the paradigm of AW”. It’s like the F word, which looks to me like every American uses it twice per sentence, while my shocked wife tells me it’s very offensive. šŸ˜‰

      The funny thing is, when we translated Daughters of Exile, I found the word “violation” in “violation of program” offensive (“viol”=rape), so much we translated it as “transgression de programme” šŸ˜‰ I can understand words may hurt (but I can’t edit my comment :/)

      This translation parenthesis is not far from the subject : some things can’t become other things. As with untranslatable expressions, some games, systems, styles or paradigms, can’t be adapted into others. To turn D&D into AW means getting rid of so many liabilities, that the result can’t get far from D&D, and would be a poor and insufferable mixture.
      And I disagree with Steve on the “fun-ness” of a D&D Polaris adaptation (or a Polaris-style D&D – you can’t “dnd” everything : it’s a very good game in it’s own niche). The 00’s were filled with adaptation of every other game to D20, most absolutely not needing it (d20 Star Wars, D20 Call of Cthulhu…). It was so useless and unsuccessful that their editors had to get back to their original combination of universe and system. Guess what, system _does_ matter >:)

      • The F-word is tricky indeed! The idea is to try and jam strong yet on the surface, incompatible genres together as a thought experiment, not because it makes good games…

  3. Adam: a fair point. I only heard about DW as being a fantasy version, which shows that that’s how we talk shorthand in this culture. We are capable of splitting off D&D-fantasy from other fantasy, of course, but we tend to do it so rarely, and we still tend to reflexively combine the two. I think for example it would be very difficult for somebody to find design space and far more importantly market space for a fantasy AW game now. And we STILL have too many D&D games. Why did anyone even think of making a AW D&D game? Are we okay with such a weird game being our one game everyone recognises and with tropes so strong we can do a D&D version of everything?

    That said, it’d be fun to see D&D versions of things like Polaris and Mountain Witch. Ooh, and Shock.

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